William Levien, Johann Kwok, A.J. Spiller, Mason Beetham, Corey Marsh

By: Mike Sawatzky – Winnipeg Free Press

On the surface, it seems like an unlikely career path.

Seven years ago, A.J. Spiller moved from Canada to New Zealand to play fastball during the sub-tropical summer. He repeated the trip the next year and again the year after that. But at some point, those trips to the Southern Hemisphere became something more than fufilling his sense of adventure.

Spiller fell in love — he and partner Monique Whareumu met that first summer — and he ended up staying to play and manage grassroots hockey in New Zealand’s biggest city — Auckland.

“When I moved here (permanently) I played one more season and then I started to play hockey and then I kind of chose hockey over fastball after that,” says Spiller, previously a third baseman for the Portage Phillies and a defenceman for the MJHL’s Terriers from 2003 to 2008.

“I enjoyed it a lot. It was just when it got into playing both — I did that for one year — and it was too much to play both hockey and fastball and I went back to university, too. So there was a lot on the go and I kind of decided to pick one over the other.”

Spiller’s academic work dovetailed nicely into his professional life. He enrolled at the University of Auckland to pursue a bachelor of commerce degree in management and marketing, completing it in 2019.

During that time, the 33-year-old interned with the Auckland Ice Hockey Association before taking over as the organization’s general manager 18 months ago. The job with AIHA, which has 800 members including 700 players, requires a healthy amount of multi-tasking. It’s something he may have developed an instinct for since playing for his dad, Blake, the longtime GM and head coach of the Terriers.

“I tie skates, fill water bottles and I kind of run the business side of Auckland Ice Hockey Association and I coach as well,” says A.J.

One of Spiller’s main tasks is to grow the game in a country, which joined the IIHF in 1977 but has just seven indoor rinks, two outdoor rinks and 1,700 players draw from a population of approximately 4.9 million residents.

“We’re definitely trying to grow the game,” he says. “Our big focus right now is on the grassroots and making it you know, as as fun and as accessible as we can for kids. Because that’s really the lifeblood of the sport. If we don’t have a good grassroots program, and nothing else is going to come out of it.”

Competing for attention with the country’s national sport, rugby, hasn’t been easy. Hockey’s March to November season also goes head to head with rugby’s premier team, the All Blacks.

A.J. Spiller at practice with youth player in Auckland, N.Z.

“It’s a little bit of a tough sell in that we play at the same time as rugby does as well — we’re both winter sports,” says Spiller. “Obviously, rugby is gonna draw a lot of people there but we are kind of similar sports. So we try to use that as well.

“We actually had two kids last year, their dad was a video coach for the All Blacks… and the both of them came to play ice hockey. And he came to check it out because he was a rugby guy and he just wanted to make sure that it was good. And he really enjoyed it.”

The country’s top men’s league, the New Zealand Ice Hockey League, has a number of import players making it possible to raise the calibre of play. Spiller took last season off to concentrate on his duties but he’ll return to the ice this year in the NZIHL, which he says is similar in calibre to the senior South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League.

New Zealand sent men’s and women’s teams to the most recent world championships, competing at Division 2, Group B level. But Spiller says the gap in skill level between import players and the bottom of NZIHL rosters is substantial.

“That’s kind of what we’re focused on right now is how can we make that bottom end a little bit better?” says Spiller. “And how can we give more Kiwi players a better chance to play in that league. I’m also coaching the under-18 national team here as well. That’s kind of in line with that, too, is how can we get more of these players playing and playing significant roles so that our national teams get better?”

On a brighter note, New Zealand’s success in limiting the impact of COVID-19 has allowed sports to continue. In 2020, the hockey season had a few stops and starts before eventually finishing as scheduled.

In 2021, it’s been mostly business as usual. Masks are still required on public transit in Auckland and airplanes but grocery shopping, for instance, can go on without masks, providing you adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“As far as the response to COVID, to keep it out and to manage it for the last little while has been pretty impressive when you look at the rest of the world,” says Spiller.

Living without snow or the deep freeze of his home province is nice, too. Auckland enjoyed 17C Wednesday and rarely goes below 8C during the cooler months of April to September.

“I like Canada and I like the winter but I kind of enjoy it here as well,” says Spiller. “It wasn’t a hard sell to come here.”